Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference

"Americanization and Discourses of National Identity in the Romanian Dilema" by Liliana Hamzea

Liliana Hamzea is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Letters, Transilvania University of Brasov, Romania. Email:

This study refers to a number of articles published in Dilema, a well-known journal of criticism, an elitist Romanian magazine, on the topic of Americanization and globalization. This magazine – founded by Andrei Pleşu in 1993 and edited by the Romanian Cultural Foundation – is among those texts that have contributed to the (re)formation of the post-communist ideas and to the reception of American culture in post-Ceausescu Romania. The articles published in Dilema are written by outstanding Romanian intellectuals of various backgrounds for an informed public that is supposed to follow long-winded philosophical and historical arguments and to embrace democratic views. Dilema had a relatively short life and lasted only until 2004; since then Dilema Veche (member of the Eurozine netwok) has replaced this journal. Pleşu, a renowned philosopher, critic and politician, remarked in the statement of editorial principles in 2001 that

[…] we do not mean […] that everything around us is a dilemma, that nobody can judge anybody and that nothing can be definitely said about anything […]. We do not want to extend the dilemma over what is undilemmatic around us. But we are recommending it, as the case may be, as a mode of wisdom.

Dilema promoted free intellectual dialogue that sheds light from as many angles as possible on topics proposed for discussion; the issues are thematic and contribute to the formation and/or adoption of a flexible mode of thinking.

The articles I focus on deal with the phenomenon of Americanization, as seen, understood and presented in the 15–21 June 2001 issue of Dilema explicitly dedicated to this process. The individual articles that I will analyze are the following: “Why Can’t the Romanian Be an American” by Bogdan Ştefãnescu, “McEscu,” by Mihaela Irimia, “Europe’s Americanization: A False Problem” by Claude Karnoouh and “With America Against Communist China and International Terrorism” by Caius Dobrescu.

Americanization appeared to be a very controversial issue not only then; every single author seems to have his or her own unique way of tackling the matter and of expressing their stance toward the phenomenon. What is common to all of them, though, is the academic, elitist refinement of style, the impeccable logical argument and erudition. In Ştefãnescu’s and Dobrescu’s articles erudition serves not only the purpose of advancing a well-grounded pro-American attitude but it is also employed to subtly strengthen the persuasive force of the call to action, in order to enact social changes. Irimia’s and Karnoouh’s articles blend mixed messages with strong, clear personal beliefs, but they do not incite to action seen as social involvement or a change in mentality; the rhetorical approach there is limited to the authors’ own interpretations and evaluations of the Americanization process in the given cultural context. In all but Irimia’s article, the Americanization process becomes actually a pretext for analyzing American history and culture, especially those related to events in the 20th century. These views lead to extended comparisons between American and European values at large or between American and Romanian values and attitudes in particular. To some, the spectacle of the West has gone as far as to replace reality with what Baudrillard called, in 1983, a simulacrum – a pattern seen especially in Irimia’s depiction of the McDonaldization of society. For others, as is the case with Ştefãnescu and Dobrescu, there is still room for more or less detached observation of Americanization, with lessons to be learned and models of action to be followed (or not). Interesting to note that in the last two authors’ articles there is a palpable sense of two separate cultural spaces.

One common feature of these texts is that the authors’ individual voices are very much present behind these systematic and refined articulations of ideas, they want to clearly differentiate themselves from the masses and from one another in their understanding of the phenomenon and thus they either attempt to ‘educate’ readers on this phenomenon (Dobrescu and Ştefãnescu) or notice with bemused superiority or bitterness what they perceive (Irimia and Karnoouh). What the articles of Dilema ultimately bring to light is the continued struggle of the Romanian post-communist society to redefine its boundaries and implicitly to redefine itself as a community, seen through American models.

In “Why Can’t the Romanian Be an American: Non-Metaphysical Reflections on the Romanian Nature in the Context of Americanization,” Ştefãnescu draws a quite impressive list of Romanian national peculiarities, which he systematically posits against their American opposites. What gives his arguments an incredible vitality – and at the same time, also credibility and hence a great persuasive force – is the language he uses and the choices of culturally embedded, oftentimes untranslatable expressions and proverbs reflecting or pointing to typical Romanian attitudes. Romanian readers are invited to identify themselves with these attitudes and to engage with the author in a process of problematization. Ştefãnescu’s strategy is thus to bring the reader in the impossibility to deny these Romanian realities and to look with the author in the same direction. The questions that Ştefãnescu raises (and frequently repeats) are meant to be internalized and recognized as valid for further progress in the given cultural realm. He asks in this article,

[w]hy can’t we borrow from the Americans the tools which made America great (both in terms of territory and of civilization) – that is, an infallible pragmatic spirit, which is not limited only to making money but includes an exemplary moral commitment, the cult for action or the almost religious respect for the ordinary flesh and bones guy called Tom, Dick, Harry or John Doe? (Ştefãnescu 10, translation mine).

The elaborate answer the author provides to this question points to the Romanian passivity combined with a propensity to criticize and to dismiss anything that comes from what is suspected to be a western civilization. This attitude is also shown to have been supported to a certain extent by the passivity ingrained in the philosophy of the most widespread Orthodox religion in the country. As for the Americans, Ştefãnescu argues,

they had a second Bible, Robinson Crusoe, the model of a homo faber who does not give up after a shipwreck and does not leave his fate into God’s hands until he has worked hard and tried all the possible variants. (ibid.)

Ştefãnescu walks the reader through historical, cultural, and political arguments that dismissed the condescending attitude of those who think of Americanization as being essentially negative. Moreover, he draws a quite elaborate comparison between the status and responsibilities of the elites in the two civilizations and concludes that – as opposed to the Romanian elite – the American elite has a constructive role in society and assumes the responsibility of actually interacting with the masses and of making a difference. Ştefãnescu is trying to practice what he preaches and thereof sets an example of a constructive, pragmatic attitude that he sees as “the only cure for the illness of the Romanian society” (ibid.)

Mihaela Irimia’s article equates Americanization with globalization in a prophetic and bitterly ironic tone. The prophetic tone comes from the distant observation of the phenomenon mixed with the very erudite explanations of the change in historical paradigms. “Look at us! Exposed to the Americanization tide, we, Europeans of the third millennium, are the bearers of all the previous formulas of homo europaeus, whose descendants, in the end, are homo americanus.” (Irimia 8, translation mine). In the opening and closing paragraphs the author’s erudition is deliberately allowed to surface and thus to create a persuasive frame for the description of the McEscu/McDonald prototype and for its inescapable ubiquity in the global society. “McEscu”, the title of the article, is also a pun that reinforces the equivalence between Americanization and globalization: a combination of the “Mac” in “McDonald’s” with the most common ending of Romanian surnames, “-escu” (ibid.).

What Irimia attempts to do is to show that a new human prototype has already emerged, namely, what she calls “homo americanus.” But this label apparently does not seem right because, in her subtle ironic way she immediately remarks that the use of Latin is superseded nowadays by another lingua franca, the English. Nevertheless, the term “American man” would be equally inappropriate for reasons of political correctness. The irony reaches a climax as the author allegedly uses the scholarly work of George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions (1998) to support her definition of this new product of “typologic engineering,” which she obviously believes to be a caricature of history. This “new man” is seen to be a robot caught up in the inescapable mechanism of a global society where there is little room left for individual expression or uniqueness. The author is, thus, addressing an existing issue before she engages in her disparaging description of the “McDonald human prototype” (Irimia 8, translation mine).

Besides, the choice of this particular work by Ritzer wards off any accusations of a reductive, limited understanding of the Americanization phenomenon which may be brought against her article when comparing it to the other views expressed in the same magazine. At the same time, Irimia’s voice and implicitly, her attitude, are clearly present throughout the article. The McDonalds (chain of) restaurant(s) seems to the author the perfect metaphor for the present-day global society and this is the basic message that she wants to ask. Her major concern, beyond the irony and apparent detachment, is the imminent uniformization of societies across the globe that draw upon the American model.

It is interesting to note how the author further places herself somewhere above this phenomenon and not within it, again by resorting to her cogent ironic definitions. She remarks that this new human prototype derives from the Enlightenment perception of the universal human nature that has been

[s]haped by rationality, efficiency, and an inexhaustible sense of progress, the Mcman […] travels, communicates by means of the Internet and rests according to the global standard time, defies the Kantian spatial-temporal concepts and has tourist experiences which are protected against the local ‘cultural shock’ because, due to a package tour bought ‘just in time’, he/she lands in an enclave that appropriately McDonaldizes his/her vacation. In other words, it makes it OK. (ibid.)

The last two paragraphs of the article combine the illustration of the ubiquity of McDonald’s restaurants with almost poetic descriptions of the places they appear in: “on a very coquette Parisian street coming from Boul St. Mitch”, or “in the Athenian swarming, numbed by the thick exhaust and molten asphalt vapors” (ibid.). The purpose of this combination is to hint at the imminent effacement of cultural specificity, an idea that is actually highlighted with more confidence but in the same ironic tone in the enumeration of “customized,” or “glocalized” (ibid.) McDonald products in various countries. Thus, the author’s attitude is one of a bitterly amused contemplation of the Americanization process at a global scale, and not so much on the Romanian stage. She allows for no values or benefits to be highlighted; it is the sweeping and/or homogenization of cultures by this huge globalization tide originating in the United States that she attempts to bring forth and to question.

Dobrescu’s article “With America Against Communist China and International Terrorism” is a passionate pro-American plea that looks primarily at the political implications of America’s extension and influence in the world. The opening paragraph actually cues the reader into a very different – if not completely opposing – position as compared to Irimia’s. The author dismisses the “laments” about “Disneylandization, MacDonaldization, fastfoodization and, last but not least, Hollywoodization” as mere “variants of the national folklore” elaborated “under the moldy ceilings of our classrooms.” (Dobrescu 9, translation mine). One has to note that, used in such a context, the word folklore has a pejorative meaning in Romanian. Dobrescu’s argument starts with a comparison between America’s image as a superpower, including the Americanization process, and the ancient Roman Empire, with the Romanization of its new territories. Dobrescu remarks that although the two ‘empires’ are very similar as far as their political construction is concerned, the latter is being highly praised in the country’s history books and in Romanian culture generally, whereas the former is often regarded as something less benign. Dobrescu draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it is ironic for a people that takes pride on being the product of a process of acculturation to put so much pathos in attacking Americanization. He notes that

[a] world power cannot be judged as being corrupt and bad merely on the ground that it is a ‘power’ and it is ‘imperial.’ A world power should be judged on the basis of its philosophical foundation, of its values, of its capacity to offer economic and moral satisfactions to as many human beings as possible. (Dobrescu 9, translation mine)

The underlying structure of Dobrescu’s argument is a systematic and also passionate refutation of the claim expressed by certain writers and social critics about the moral equivalence between the Soviet, communist imperialism and the American, capitalist expansionism. Dobrescu argues that there is a huge difference, in moral terms, between the two, and he obviously sides with the American system of values in which he highlights the issue of

faith in individual freedom, in political democracy, in the benefits of technological progress and in the ability of acquiring prosperity by means of rational choice and by the courage to assume responsibility for one’s actions. (Dobrescu 9, translation mine).

The dichotomies are very clear here: Soviet communism and American capitalism are two inherent opposites and whereas the communist system is not explained or described to the reader (any more), the author apparently feels compelled to draw attention to the values promoted by the American society. By bringing the communist system into discussion he could have rested his case given the generalized repugnance towards former Soviet satellites or for anything related to the communist context.

However, his social and political engagement wouldn’t have been complete if he had stopped here. Therefore, Dobrescu takes the issue further and places it in the military context of the new millennium, more precisely in the context of various political powers forming larger coalitions. Thus, in the same straightforward manner that he had conducted his argument so far, he sees it only natural that Europe in general, and consequently Romania, should support the United States in its struggle against terrorism (grounded in religious fundamentalism) and against the expansive tendencies of communist China. It is quite interesting at this point to emphasize the fact that the article was published three months before September 11, 2001.

What Dobrescu attempts to do here is to systematically and directly dispel any possible variants of the Americanization myths at the Romanian level, and to put on a very clear pro-American message grounded in a logical argument so that there remains no confusion about his position. What gives his article a particular quality is his ease in juggling with political and historical data and also by pointing at mistaken interpretations of some of these.

In “Europe’s Americanization: A False Problem,” Claude Karnoouh gives a commonsensical, logical explanation of the development of the United States in the 20th century at the expense of Europe’s gradual decadence. By doing so, he contradicts a couple of intellectuals’ arguments for attacking or mocking American culture. The dichotomy that Karnoouh works with is the large-scale dichotomy of Europe-America, but the values implied in this dichotomy are sometimes reversed so that it is difficult, even for a meticulous reader to see which side the author really takes. The argumentation here is almost exclusively historically grounded but it is also supported by an elitist refinement. When explaining the United States’ growing prosperity, Karnoouh reminds the reader that Americans simply

received the dividends of a both direct and indirect involvement in European matters, an involvement allowed by the suicidal attitudes of European peoples, of their political leaders, whether they had been elected or not. (Karnoouh 9, translation mine)

The dichotomy Europe-America seems less well established than it appeared at first and the argument has its ‘gray areas.’ The United States is called “Europe’s prodigal son” (ibid.); American culture is viewed solely as a continuation and radicalization of the European one, while America, in general, is portrayed as the proof of the world’s Europeanization. Up to a certain point, it seems that Europe’s richness and assets gradually slid – and got lost – into a huge American space because of the Europeans’ carelessness and because of historical circumstances, Karnoouh claims. The Americans are seen as having played history’s cards to their best advantage and seem to even control Europe’s destiny. Toward the end of the article, Karnoouh mentions an idea launched by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle concerning a “history that always happens elsewhere” (Duroselle qtd. in Karnoouh), which implies that Europe’s history is now being written in America. In other words, all that Europeans can do now is to wait for the “making of history” (ibid.) across the ocean. The power has been taken over by America, and the implicit idea is that whoever has the power makes history. The end of the article, however, reveals a nostalgia for Europe’s glorious days coupled with a sense of helplessness and a strange optimism.

To a certain extent the Americanization of the Romanian cultural space is undoubtedly a reality and an integral part of the post-communist, simulacrum-like society. However, by virtue of the fact that it is being interpreted through Romanian perceptual lenses, this process is transformed into a tool for rethinking the characteristics of one’s national identity. While it is true that the authors of the Dilema take very different stances toward this relationship between American and Romanian cultural spaces, this does not mean that the coherence of the any community of either side is shattered. In other words, “the ‘commonality’ which is found in community need not be a uniformity;” it is rather “a commonality of forms (ways of behaving) whose content (meanings) may vary considerably among its members” (Cohen 20). The form in this case is represented by two major aspects revealed by these textual approaches to current Americanization processes. Firstly, there is the Romanian propensity toward a debate where everybody’s voice must be recognized as a unique, distinct voice, a form of debate that was suppressed during the communist regime and that has been easily revived after the 1989 Revolution. Secondly, there is a sort of double-level dialogism achieved by placing the Romanian national identity and culture in a larger context (European, global) and by integrating the voice(s) of the other(s). The sense of the community in the articles of Dilema may seem to be “americanized,” but it definitely continues to have its own boundaries precisely because it can still talk with so much vigor about the other culture. The voices in these articles speak from within a community and reflect the peculiarities of that community’s mode of thinking about itself and about its interaction with the United States. It is a community that has a particularly long tradition of defining itself in relationship with the ‘Western other;’ the phrase ‘an island of Latin in a Slavic sea’ being still a common cliché in the set of labels for the national identity. Although the above expression is absent in these articles, the ideas reflected in the texts refer basically to the same mentality, with the only difference that it is expressed in more complex, nuanced and sophisticated ways that state the need for the Romanians to embrace the values of Western cultures in order to preserve its ways of thinking and of being.

Paradoxically, what seems at first glance a quest for and a negotiation of the national identity in the Romanian post-communist agora turns into a certain reinforcement of the already existing boundaries of self-definition and hence of the distinctive features of a community of which the intellectuals are as much a part as any Romanian. Regardless of the degree of appreciation of the American culture that these authors display in their articles, they all speak from within a culture. The moment of crisis that surfaces in these texts is also a moment of communitas, although this latter aspect is not fully acknowledged, at least not at the given level. It appears that a period of transition in the life of a community, with its inherent struggles over issues of national identity, merely reinforces the distinctive features of a community in relation to other communities. The articles of Dilema are the best mirror proving this point.

Works Cited

  • Cohen, A. 1985. The Symbolic Construction of Community. Chichester, NY: Ellis Horwood.
  • Dobrescu, Caius. 2001.“Cu America împotriva Chinei comuniste şi a terorismului internaţional.” [With America Against Communist China and International Terrorism]. Dilema, June 15-21, 2001, p. 9.
  • Emerson, C., ed. 1984. Mikhail Bakhtin. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
  • Irimia, Mihaela. 2001. “McEscu.” Dilema, June 15-21, 2001, p. 8.
  • Karnoouh, Claude. 2001. “Americanizarea Europei: o falsă problemă.” [Europe’s Americanization: A False Problem]. Dilema, June 15-21, 2001, p. 9.
  • Rosteck, T., ed. 1999. At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies. London: The Guilford P.
  • Ştefãnescu, Bogdan. 2001. “De ce nu e românul american.” [Why Can’t the Romanian Be an American]. Dilema, June 15-21, 2001, p.10.